San Francisco: No Money to Fly, No Time to Stay

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

– Not Mark Twain

We looked like tourists. We were, sort of. We’d just driven down from Portland yesterday and we were stumbling through the financial district of San Francisco in flip-flops, shorts, a messenger bag (mine), and a cardigan (hers). It was cold, and we had not packed accordingly. So much like tourists. “We’re on BUSINESS!” I shouted silently to the ebb and flow of business-attired San Franciscans who were, I knew, silently judging.

“We’re here to get visas! Official business!”

“Really? But what’s that around your neck?” they taunted.

“Oh, that? It’s… a camera. I’m a photographerI do art with this thing!”

San Francisco cold creeps into your skin with the deft precision and confidence of a surgeon. I kept saying in an lame, uncle-ish sort of way that I couldn’t wait until we got back to the Pacific Northwest where it was sunny and warm. My girlfriend had taken off a single day of work so that we could drive down here, which we had done yesterday in as leisurely a way as we could manage given that we couldn’t really stop. No rose-smelling, though we caught a faint floral whiff on a five-minute pit stop with a great view of Mount Shasta. We arrived in the Bay area early in the evening stayed the night in a motel in Vallejo. The pizza we ordered never arrived. Cheese, crackers, and a Naked® fruit smoothie for dinner. Wine from Target; the only red wine with a twist-off cap.

Sleep.

Monday morning, we fought our way into San Francisco, triumphing over traffic, tollbooths, and a senile GPS. Catherine. I really should update that old bat. Arriving in San Francisco, we spent a frantic hour in the city collecting coffees, directions, and self-addressed, prepaid envelopes while darting from warm spot to warm spot and filling out visa forms. Taking refuge in the benevolent glow of an outdoor space heater, we put the finishing touches on the forms. Mind fogging over from fatigue, stress, and the cold, I was agonizing way too much over details on the form.

“Okay… Day/Month/Year. Day: Twenty-second, easy. Now, April. April is the…   …fourth month? Yeah, so… zero, four.”

This was the first time I’d ever been to San Francisco. I’ll remember that hour as I remember the city itself: Busy, foggy, lots of coffee. By nine o’clock, we were in line at the French Consulate. A tall gentleman occupied the makeshift security checkpoint by the door, and mumbled instructions to visitors. When it was my turn, I approached and clumsily swung my bag and camera on to the table next to the metal detector, tendered my passport, and passed through the detector. On the other side, I picked up my unexamined bag from the table. The next half-hour, or quarter-hour, or whatever was a sterile, bureaucratic blur. Papers were demanded, and slid through gaps in bullet-proof glass. Biometric data and unflattering official photographs were taken.

“Don’t smile,” instructed the young French official as I stood for my picture. He looked strikingly all-American. In another life, he would have been a varsity quarterback and homecoming king. I let my eyes slide out of focus so as not to look cross-eyed in my picture. The room was all glass and stainless steel, an aquarium with fish and nothing else. No gravel, no plants, no little shipwreck. How could you avoid smiling in a place with this much warmth?

At some point in the interrogation, my previous visas became a sticking point. My heart fluttered briefly as my inquisitor handed my passport off to a supervisor. The supervisor leaned over, eyes flicking from passport to me.

“What were these visas for?”

“Work.”

“So you worked, and now you’re going to study?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded, and passed my dossier back to the quarterback. He would’ve dated a cheerleader, married her just out of college, and become a well-respected local businessman and, later, a state Senator. A pillar of his community; a call-to-worship reader in the local parish church.

“Okay. We’re going to keep your passport, and you should get it back in about two weeks.”

“So that’s… everything’s good?”

It was. “Alright! Have a good one!” I urged, with theatrical warmth. We left the building and trudged back toward the car, cold and exhausted. I spent one last, frantic moment sifting through my possessions for the ticket to the parking garage, having forgotten where we’d parked. Details. If I ever come before Saint Peter I will tell him that my thoughts have been pure, having never turned for a moment to details, which is where the devil is. 

We found the car, flung our belongings therein, and hit the road. Eleven hours to Portland.

***

We got our passports in the mail a few days after our visit to the consulate. We’re pretty sure they just wait until we leave to slap a visa on an empty page in the passport. We’re pretty sure they could just do it and hand it back to us right then and there. Still, there’s a 24-waiting period, and wait 24 hours they shall.

The drive from Portland to San Francisco is well worth doing. Even within a stress-filled, 36 hour time frame it’s an incredible trip.

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